Krauss’ Yawp


The History of Love
By Nicole Krauss
252 pages. W. W. Norton. $23.95.

Nicole Krauss is asking big questions. Or rather, the big questions. Some fiction writers want to talk about scenarios: what would happen if? They have a plot in mind when they start. Or they might be reflecting on some current event, some feature of the contemporary social landscape. Krauss, though, has other things on her mind. “I think I’ve never thought that I’m any good at writing plot or devising plot… the books that I’m interested in reading, and finally, writing, are really books that explore the inner life. I don’t at all mean to sound grandiose about any aspirations, but I guess I like things that consider the existential questions, like what Beckett says, ‘Ah, the old questions, the old answers. Nothing like them.’” She thought to ask them again.

But for Krauss, a funny thing happened on the way to the old questions: she created some fabulous and intricate plots, the very sort she thought she wasn’t very good at writing. Perhaps as a result, her second novel, The History of Love, has been a New York Times and Booksense bestseller, a Today Show pick, and the subject of lavish praise from reviewers of varied tastes. That result was, to the author, an ironic twist. In a recent conversation, following her reading at New York’s 92nd St. Y, Krauss explained that as she began to write the novel she “was trying to find a way to be okay with writing books that didn’t sell lots and lots of copies. And then, very accidentally, this book, well, you do something different and it just goes to show.”

Her first novel, Man Walks Into a Room, introduces her readers to a man named Samson Greene, a professor who, on losing 24 years of his memory completely, walks out of his life in New York and begins anew in the desert of Nevada. What begins, for the reader, as a creative scenario to explore questions of identity and memory ultimately blooms into a reflection on isolation and empathy, and one of those big questions. In our interview, Krauss put it this way: “It’s impossible to stand in another person’s shoes and yet we’re desperate to be understood.”

This is a dilemma that pervades her work, and as she says, “I think that I have what could be seen as either a keenly melancholy view of life, or a hopeful one, depending on the way the story is being written at any given time… the more hopeful way of looking at [the existential dilemma she posed] is that the labor, the great labor of life is trying to make oneself understood and then, it does happen. And when it does happen, it’s so unique and rare… I think that all of my characters are in some way or other engaged with that psychic scene, with what they find an extremely difficult effort of making themselves seen, heard, or understood.” That she thinks of them this way isn’t a surprise. As diverse as her characters are, the trait common to all of them is loneliness. Samson and the two main characters in The History of Love, 80-year-old Leo Gursky and 14-year-old Alma Singer, stand as portraits of three different types of loneliness. “Some of them are radically alienated. Samson, and in some ways, Leo, are examples of that. It’s hard to imagine writing a character who is sort of a gregarious person, who has fun at parties and has lots of friends. One person once pointed out to me that in all the fiction I’ve written, there’s not a single instance he can find where three people are having a conversation. He’s probably right. There might be one or two.”

Given what she’s observed as the near-impossibility of making a real connection with another person, it was natural that she applied the same thinking to her writing. As she told the audience at the Y, she spent the months that followed the publication of Man Walks Into a Room in a state of great anxiety. Assaulted by questions about her abilities and commitments as a writer, and about the value of writing another book, she approached it as a personal project rather than as a mission to create a certain novel. One of her questions was “How many readers is enough readers?” Leo Gursky asks himself a form of this question in The History of Love. Gursky, a writer without any concern for an audience until he discovers that a manuscript he’d written almost 60 years earlier was not only published, but translated into at least two languages. He wrote the book in Poland before fleeing the Holocaust, leaving behind everyone he knew and the only woman he ever loved. He had thought that the book was surely lost, as well. The story of that book and the hands it passed through is as much the story of his life as the day-to-day he’d experienced. He wonders—upon seeing the translation of his own work for the first time—who has read his writing, and what it might have meant to them. How many were there? “Was there a number that wouldn’t disappoint me?” he asks himself. Krauss says of her own similar question, “I remember thinking that even if, say, you sold 500 books, that isn’t very many books at all. But if you were able to put 500 people in a room, that’s a huge number of people to have had some kind of conversation with. I guess Leo was, in a way, an example of a writer who didn’t ever, and wouldn’t ever, receive any kind of acclaim or affirmation or response even, but who somehow or other continued to do it. It was an idealization of that sort of writer, but he certainly was kind of a relief to expand into.” Whether or not she ever considered it so, Krauss created herself a role model in Gursky, surely one of the stranger relationships between writer and character: that of student and mentor.

Gursky was actually more or less where she started with the novel. “It was more of just a mood, no sense of plot, or really even characters. The original kind of energy that sparked the novel was basically the sound of a voice, that was Leo’s voice to begin with, and then later the younger girl’s, Alma’s voice, was kind born as a counterpoint… Leo’s voice became, in a way, a way of answering some of those difficult questions.” After she explored that voice and let him talk and figured out who he was and what he was about, then came “the concerns about structure and narrative. What purpose is this voice serving, if any at all? But those came much, much, much later.” And when they did? “I was actually very surprised when, two-thirds of the way through writing this, I found that I had accidentally backed my way into quite an interesting narrative that needed to be worked out.”

For Krauss, this process was entirely different from what she’d gone through when writing Man Walks into a Room. When she began to write that first novel, it was her first fiction; until then she’d been a poet. “I wrote my first novel coming directly out of poetry, and I think I had a lot of the same habits I had when I was writing poetry. So I spent a lot of time carving each sentence. I very deliberately went about writing The History of Love in a different fashion… I was trying to find a way of capturing a sense of energy on the page, which I think you couldn’t possibly do if you sit and sort of carve, sentence by sentence. So the process was very purposefully different, and I think the result was, as well. If I had to choose which way to write, I think I’m stuck on the idea of capturing this sort of life energy.” She describes the two approaches as “diamond-cutting” and “the barbaric yawp.” A lot of the old questions have come our way via the yawp, and the old answers, too. Certainly, Whitman’s yawp is the method of Gursky. For now, at least, it’s also the method of Nicole Krauss.